“Virtual Recall” is a mind-bending, genre-blending thriller that combines romance, psychological drama and ambitious science fiction elements in an attempt to explore the theme of parallel universes. Adapted from the popular novel “Symbiosis” by Lam Wing Sum (who also wrote “Magic Kitchen”), the film draws upon the wormhole theories of Stephen Hawking, trying to add a little scientific reasoning behind its grand ideas. Directed by Cheung Hoi Ching (“Devil’s Vindata”), the film was headlined by Stephen Fung (“House of Fury”), Cherrie Ying (“My Left Eye Sees Ghosts”), and Tang Yifei (“Future X-Cops”), with support from Hong Kong regulars TVB star Sammul Chan, Samuel Pang (recently in the “PTU” spin off “Tactical Unit” series), Mandy Chiang (“Yes, I Can See Dead People”), and “Troublesome Night” veteran Simon Lui.
The labyrinth plot follows Tang Yifei as top psychiatrist Dr. Xiao Tingqin, charged with trying to cure the mysterious and beautiful Shen Liushuang (Cherrie Ying), who just happens to believe she has special powers and the ability to see parallel universes. As she spends more time with the alluring woman, Tingqin finds herself being drawn into her claims and theories, opening her eyes to the consequences of the decisions she has made in her life. Strange things start to happen and her sense of reality is troubled as she is pursued by a knife wielding killer, and her relationship with her cop husband Zhen Shanlin (Stephen Fung) is put under strain as she realises he has been having an affair.
It doesn’t take long for it to become abundantly obvious that “Virtual Recall” is an odd affair, if for no other reason that Tingqin is clearly worst psychiatrist ever, agreeing to play Russian roulette with her patient, then taking her out for Thai boxing and generally doing whatever she is told, apparently just because of Liushuang’s mysterious eyes. The whole thing does frequently feel like several films thrown together, with the science fiction elements in particular being rather leftfield, despite the inclusion of a ponderous voiceover to try and soothe the nerves of confused viewers. Weirdly, this all works quite well and the film does hold the interest despite its utter lack of sense, and though baffling and proudly silly, it’s entertaining throughout and never really has a dull moment. There’s certainly a great deal going on, with the mystery, psycho-drama and thriller elements all butting heads as Tingqin is chased by the dreadlock wig wearing maniac whilst possibly flipping in and out of other realities, punctuated by scenes of exposition that are tangential at best. Added to this are a few vague action sequences and some mild flashes of lingerie and semi nudity, not to mention one of the best and funniest death scenes for some time (Sammul Chan, take a bow), all ensuring that the film really does make for a great deal of wacky fun.
Most of the credit or blame for the film’s enjoyable eccentricity lies squarely with director Cheung Hoi Ching, who shoots the whole thing like some kind of 1980s music video or commercial, with some hilariously awful special effects that appear to have been done with a computer paint package, along with some ill-conceived flashy editing techniques. Most amusingly, he works in an impressive number of bizarre sudden cuts to reaction shots and zooming camera angles, usually involving Tang Yifei and being repeated three or more times, accompanied by random whooshing noises. The film also packs in lots of sappy montages and flashbacks, often with amusingly unconvincing efforts to make the cast look younger and made all the funnier by a bouncy pop soundtrack which bubbles away constantly in the background with little concern for mood or drama.
The cast also play a large part in making the film so much fun, uniformly over acting throughout and making the very most of the script’s many ridiculously melodramatic moments. Pretty much everyone seems to be zoned out, spending a fair amount of the running time staring off into the distance rather than each other – special mention goes to Stephen Fung for an awesome flashback scene during which he runs into a street sign without actually coming close to hitting it. This of course gives rise to the question as to whether or not Cheung Hoi Ching conceived the film as a comedy rather than as a far-reaching science fiction psychological drama, as it’s a little hard to believe that this much incompetence could be anything other than purposeful.
Ultimately, the answer to this doesn’t really matter, as while “Virtual Recall” is undeniably a mess, it’s also a very entertaining one, challenging the berserk “Mysterious Island” for the title of the most chaotic and entertaining piece of cinematic ineptitude for some time. Indeed, so much of the film is so jaw-droppingly odd that it functions very well indeed as a boisterous comedy, and viewers or fans of the weird and far-out who approach it as such are pretty much guaranteed a good, if mystifying time.
Cheung Hoi Ching (director) / Lam Wing Sum (screenplay)
CAST: Stephen Fung … Zhen Shanlin
Cherrie Ying … Shen Liushuang
Tang Yifei … Xiao Tingqin